Reading the biblical prophets can be confusing. But there's so much to discover when we learn to read these books with attention and context.
Jon: Ezekiel, Obadiah, Habakkuk. What do these names have in common? Well they’re three of the fifteen prophets that have their own books in the Bible.
Tim: And if you’ve tried to read these books, odds are you got lost in their dense poetry and strange imagery. But these books are super important for understanding the overall biblical story.
Jon: So let’s talk about how to read the prophets.
Jon: When I hear the word “prophet,” I think of a fortune teller––someone who predicts the future.
Tim: That's what being a prophet means in many cultures but not in the Bible. While the biblical prophets sometimes speak about the future, they’re way more than fortune tellers.
Jon: How should I think about them?
Tim: Well, they were Israelites who had a radical encounter with God’s presence and then were commissioned to go and speak on God’s behalf.
Jon: Like a representative.
Tim: Right. And the thing that they cared about the most is the mutual partnership that existed between God and the Israelites.
Jon: Right, the partnership. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and invited them to become a nation of justice and generosity that would represent his character to the nations.
Tim: And so this partnership required all Israelites to give their trust and allegiance to their God alone. In the Bible, this partnership is called the “covenant.”1.
Jon: But their leaders, the priests, the kings, led Israel astray and they broke the covenant.
Tim: And so this is where the prophets came in, to remind Israel of their role in the partnership. And they did this in three ways. First, they were constantly accusing Israel for violating the terms of the covenant. The charges usually include idolatry, alliances with other nations and their gods, and allowing injustice towards the poor.
Jon: Ah, so like covenant lawyers.
Tim: Right. And so second, the prophets called the Israelites to repent, which means simply to turn around. They spoke of God’s mercy to forgive them if they would just confess and change their ways.
Jon: But Israel and its leaders didn’t change. Things went from bad to worse.
Tim: And so that brings us to the third way the prophets emphasized the covenant. They announced the consequences for breaking it, which they called the Day of the Lord.
Jon: Oh yeah, the apocalypse! Visions of the end of the world!
Tim: Well, sort of. The prophets were mostly interested in how God would bring his justice on Israel’s corruption and on the violent nations around them. And while explaining these local events, they often use cosmic imagery.
Jon: Cosmic imagery?
Tim: Yeah, like Jeremiah. He described the exile of the Israelites to Babylon as the undoing of creation itself. The land dissolves into chaos and disorder, no light, no animals or people. Or Isaiah described the downfall of Babylon as the disintegration of the cosmos––stars falling from the sky, the sun going dark. For the prophets, when God acts in human history to bring justice, it’s a Day of the Lord.2
Jon: So the prophets aren’t talking about the end of the world?
Tim: Well, hold on. They’re doing many things at once. The cosmic imagery shows how these important events of their day fit into the bigger story of God’s mission to bring down every corrupt and violent nation once and for all. The prophets cared about the present and the future, and the cosmic imagery allowed them to talk about both at the same time.
Jon: Got it. So no matter when you live, the Day of the Lord is bad news if you’re part of Babylon.
Tim: But it’s good news if you’re waiting for God’s Kingdom. The Day of the Lord pointed to the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. And once again, the prophets use cosmic poetry to describe it. They see a new Jerusalem like a new garden of Eden, with all humanity living at peace with each other and with the animals. And there’s a new messianic King who restores God’s Kingdom in a renewed creation.3
Jon: Beautiful. So those are the three themes in the prophets. These prophets must have been very powerful, persuasive speakers.
Tim: Well, some were, but others lived on the margins. They would often perform strange symbolic stunts in public to communicate their message. Like when Ezekiel lay in the dirt and built a model of Jerusalem being attacked by Babylon, or when Isaiah walked around naked for three years as a symbol of the humiliation of exile.4
Jon: So did people pay attention to them?
Tim: Not really. The stories in these books show how the prophets were a minority group mostly shunned by Israel’s leaders. And their writings were a kind of resistance literature. Most people ignored them, that is, until their warnings came true in the Babylonian exile.
Jon: And after that, people began to take their words seriously.
Tim: Yes. The works of these earlier prophets were inherited by later unnamed prophets who studied these texts intensely. They’re the ones who arranged the Hebrew Scriptures as we know them, including the books of the prophets.
Jon: Okay. And there’s fifteen books of the prophets. The big three are Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Tim: And then there’s a collection of twelve smaller prophetic works unified on a single scroll. And in each of these books, you will read stories about the prophets and their poems and visions all arranged to show the cosmic meaning of Israel’s history––how God would turn their tragic story of failure and exile...
Jon: Into a story of hope and restoration for all nations.
Tim: And it’s that twin message of prophetic warning and of hope that the prophets cared about so much. And it’s a message we still need to hear today.